On title alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman by Julietta Henderson is one of those deliciously escapist slice-of-life British adventures where idiosyncratically good things happen to people who really need some good to come into their beleaguered lives.
And while, there is very much a substantial element of that running through the delightfully engaging narrative, the reality is that there is also a tremendous amount of skillfully woven-in heartbreaking pain and grief.
The story, which centres on 12-year-old psoriasis-suffering Norman’s quest to find his birth father and secure and fulfill a slot at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe, a road trip from his home in Penzance, Cornwall up through England and Wales into Scotland, is in many ways one of those giddily possible adventures of destinies oriented that make books in this genre such a sweet delight.
Norman, who has long fancied himself a stand-up comic in the making, an heir to his grandfather’s crown of almost-comedy great – in truth he was nothing of the kind but Norman is not aware of his antecedent’s full history – is excited to be realising a longheld dream to perform comedy, part of a grand five-year plan that he and his best friend Jax cooked up long ago, both certain their future lay with making people laugh, just like the comedy greats they idolised.
“I know it’s selfish to worry about myself when Mum has to look after me and go to work and cook dinners and wash our clothes and pay the leccy bill and all that other stuff. But with Jax gone it’s just so hard for me to stop thinking about how I don’t have a best mate any more. And how much I miss him every single second of every single hour of every single day.” (P. 37)
But before the two of them can realise their dream of becoming one of the latest in a long line of stellar British comedians, 11-year-old Jax, all rambunctious cheekiness and extrovert risk taking, the punchline delivering comedian to Norman’s straight man – think Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy – dies from an asthma attack in the depths of the night, leaving Norman among many others, beyond bereft at his absence.
Struggling to help her son deal with near insurmountable grief, which shut her quietly brave son to a shadow of his former self, and battling profound loss of her own – Jax had become almost a second son to her and his sudden departure from their lives creates a gaping chasm neither she nor Norman can even hope of filling, or so they think – Sadie, who doubts her ability as a mum on an almost minute-by-minute basis, seizes on the idea of a grand quest to find Norman’s dad and get him to the Fringe as a way of returning him to the boy she knows and loves.
To be fair, it’s actually Norman’s idea, or is it Jax’s (Norman himself isn’t quite sure), and so with Leonard, her 80-something friend from work who is a dab hand at almost everything thanks to taking every community centre adult education class on offer, they set off to see if the future can indeed be rescue from the past.
Sadie is deeply worried that the past is not up to rescuing them from the present and sending them on the road to a happier future, but Norman, despite his nerves and his immense sadness, whose expression makes you ache with empathy for a delightful young man who misses his one and only friend like a sawn-off limb, is convinced that only something good can come from hitting the road.
Leonard, too, is an immense help, despite nursing a profound lingering loss of his own, drawing up an itinerary, creating a Facebook page for Norman, the so-called Little Big Man of Comedy, and generally seeing to all the admin stuff that a grand quest entails.
Along the way, the trio meet up with the four candidates for Norman’s dad – that’s as short a list as Sadie, a wild woman in her youth who used sex, drugs, alcohol and rock ‘n’ roll to deal with her father’s untimely passing when she was still at university – and inadvertently form a found family that expands their relational possibilities, brings their lives alive again and remakes the future into something they actually want to inhabit.
It is heartwarming in the extreme and you can’t help but wish that Norman, who thinks his mum is the absolute best despite her doubts that she is anything at all approaching a decent mother, gets all the happiest of things in the world.
He’s good kind, an amazing kid in fact and he deserves everything.
But lingering over everything is his and Sadie’s grief, and Henderson does a superbly affecting job of conveying how great a hole the loss of someone, especially to people socially isolated for so long from the world at large – Norman by his psoriasis, Sadie by her unresolved grief from years earlier – creates and how near impossible it is to fill it in in any kind of meaningful, life-affirming way.
“But as hard as I tried, and as many pethidine waves as I rode, I still couldn’t think about Norman standing up on a stage in my father’s moth-eaten jacket without seeing the emptiness around him. All that space that Jax used to fill with his laughter, his noise, his badness, his goodness and his funniness. And the space that my father could have – should have – filled in his life. Come on, love. Let’s go home. in my life.” (P. 319)
Lightly yet movingly realised, The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman is one of those rare novels that is both whimsically sweet and soberingly sad, testament to the way in which life is rarely straightforward or cut and dried, with the good and the bad mixing together often in what feels like an unholy and bewildering mess.
Certainly in Norman’s coming alive again, Henderson captures, so achingly beautifully, the tension we all feel when life moves on, as it always does, and we are faced with embracing it while trying to not forget the person we have lost.
We know that moving on is inevitable but we also feel guilty, as Norman does, that we are somehow doing a disservice to the person we have lost by not dwelling in that grief forever.
So The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman is as much as how you chart a way out of grief, often haphazardly and with no real grace or elegance but hopefully a new lease on life, and how even as you do something crazy, as Norman does when he seeks to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe in memory of his beloved bestie Jax, you might be actually doing the sanest thing you can do for yourself.
The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman is a sublime, moving delight, a pitch-perfectly written novel that acknowledges the long-lasting, lingering blitzkrieg horrors of grief and loss while also bravely charting a course forward that never for once second forgets the person lost to you and how by going forward into an uncertain but promising future, you are, in fact, paying greatest tribute to the person you loved and so tragically lost.